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Policy | Where should Modi 2.0 start with the environment? Everywhere

Environmental health is a long game, but politics isn’t. The problem is that for human beings to effectively act on a future crisis, they need to be able to see themselves in it, and for the most part, limited election terms stymie such long views.

June 18, 2019 / 09:10 AM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image

Padmaparna Ghosh

Attempting to make a list of what the Union government needs to do on the environmental front is like trying to put out a thousand little fires across India… with one hose. To be honest, this is not restricted to India but the world. With report-after-report tightening the world’s deadline for runaway climate change and a soon-to-be-unrecognisable Earth, we know what we are running out of the fastest — time.

The Modi government begins its second term at an unenviable level, environmentally speaking, at the bottom of the pile — that is the Global Environment Performance Index rankings. In 2018, according to Centre for Science and Environment’s State of India’s Environment report, India was at the 177th position out of 180 countries, down from 141 in 2016. From air and water quality to groundwater levels, from the deteriorating condition of our forests to the state of environmental justice, from greenhouse gas emissions to snowballing trash piles — to make a ranked list of where India needs would be Sophie’s Choice.

Most of the Modi government’s past responses to environmental crises are band aids on gaping wounds. Farmer insurance schemes against losses is welcome buffer in an exceedingly harsh profession with low returns, but there also needs to be increased focus on climate-smart agriculture. Modi has made the ambitious promise of doubling farmers’ income by 2020 while climate change is slated to reduce farm incomes by up to 20-25% in the medium term.

In the face of little global unanimity or action on greenhouse gas emission reduction, it is prudent to focus on adaptation strategies including better and more accessible weather advisory, more funding for agri-science and climate resilience in the face of increasing uncertainty, and livelihood diversification.


One of the first challenges that the Modi government had taken up was to clean Ganga but there is little to show for it. Of the money collected in the fund, The Wire reported, only 18% has been spent. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the Ganga contains so much faecal bacteria that even bathing in the river is dangerous. This is in spite of complete sanitation coverage in 4,465 villages on the banks of the Ganga and no open defecation any longer, according to the government.

India’s flagship river cleaning program has failed. Consider this in the context of a Niti Aayog report which states that India is “suffering from the worst water crisis in its history”. Forget just the Ganga, 70% of India’s water is contaminated, impacting three in four Indians. Just a third of India’s wastewater is currently treated before being dumped into freshwater bodies, and eventually leaching into groundwater. Groundwater levels are at an all-time low and falling, and 21 cities are predicted to run out by 2020 — in one year’s time. To say that this fundamental right needs attention is to say that a dying man needs a doctor.

Probably the worst performance or the worst undoing of previously progressive policy regarding the environment has been in the forestry sector. While the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had passed the Forest Rights Act with the morally correct intention of putting forest resources into the hands of communities that depend on them, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has walked it back, effectively reigniting a decades-old bitter conflict between the forest department and poor, forest-dependent people. All the while though India reports an increase in forest cover, its quality of forest has declined, pointing to increase in business-oriented monocultures and plantations.

The cleanliness move by the government and plastic bans in some states are good intentions but cosmetic to a certain extent; all the while industrial and household waste pours into bulging end-of-life landfills, into our ponds, rivers and seas. Even though toilets have been built, behaviour change haven’t followed. A deep focus on renewable energy is also the right decision but that too is showing signs of a slow down.

Lastly, red alerts have been seen against pollution of all kinds (air, water, soil). India scored 5.75 out of 100 in air quality the state of environment report, and Indian cities are consistently rated as the worst in global rankings. Yet, roads and private car ownership are considered the answer to mobility issues in cities, not public transport.

Over its last term, the NDA government has effectively reduced the ministry of environment, forest and climate change into an approval agency for business and industry. There is nothing wrong in streamlining regulatory processes but it has come at the cost of environmental integrity from the ministry that is supposed to protect it. The environmental justice system, that is the National Green Tribunal, is suffering from crippling manpower problems with very long case pendency.

The new government needs to fight all environmental fronts not because it is all its own doing but because environmental issues have never really been considered. All these issues are in a closed loop system — groundwater, agriculture, monsoon, pollution, emissions, trash, energy, climate change — these are all linked. It would be wise to start everywhere.

Among all these fires, small and large, it is pertinent to remember that India is heavily ecology dependent. From the health of our forests, the quality of soil, the timeliness and intensity of monsoon and other weather patterns, from the millions of homesteads in areas now susceptible to climate change impacts to the millions of livelihoods dependent, these are all dependent on natural capital. Environmental health, unfortunately, is a long game, but politics isn’t. The problem is that for human beings to effectively act on a future crisis, they need to be able to see themselves in it, and for the most part, limited election terms stymie such long views.

What we need are environmental policies that are passed forward from government to government like a relay race. That baton is our future.

Padmaparna Ghosh is a freelance writer. Views are personal.
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